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Neoconservative History


Myths are notoriously hardy. They can flourish, subside, and flourish again. One of the hardiest myths in modern American history is associated with the Yalta conference toward the end of World War II. It originally arose during the Truman administration, when Yalta was made into a code word for treason. The Republican party’s platform of 1952 went so far as to denounce the Yalta agreements on the ground that they had secretly aided “Communist enslavements.” That there was nothing secret about them after the full text was published in March 1947 and that they were intended to prevent Communist enslavements made no difference to the platform writers. The guilt for this treasonable sellout of Eastern Europe was attributed to one man, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and through him to the Democratic party in particular and to liberals in general. The accusation envenomed American politics throughout the McCarthy period but seemed to be spent by the late 1950s.

Now it has returned. It has just been put forward in one form or another not once but three times by three different writers in the pages of the November 1985 issue of Commentary, its fortieth anniversary issue. A related version has also come to the surface in the recently published diaries of John Colville, Churchill’s wartime private secretary and a contributor to the September 1985 issue of Commentary. I came across these rein-carnations in casual reading; no doubt more intensive research would turn up others, but these are enough to indicate a resurgence of an ominous mythology.

This phenomenon is worth examining for its own sake, because a nation should know its own past, and because Yalta-and-Roosevelt baiting is a form of retro-active politics that tells us something about the present.

The first specimen in the November 1985 Commentary was contributed by Lionel Abel, whose recent book was aptly entitled The Intellectual Follies. He based himself on a single article by Colville in the following way:

And Roosevelt was personally responsible for terrible foreign-policy decisions (described in these pages only two months ago by John Colville in his article, “How the West Lost the Peace in 1945”) which gave the Soviet Union control of Eastern Europe.

Colville in turn had placed the giveaway at Yalta in February 1945 and had specifically named Poland as the victim:

After long discussions and much argument [at Yalta] it was agreed that some non-Communist Poles should be invited to join the [Polish] government—though they would be but a minority—and that “free and unfettered elections,” in which all except the fascist parties should be allowed to put forward candidates, would be held within a few months. The British delegation was not content with the vagueness of the Soviet promises or the design of the proposed Polish government; but since the Soviets and Americans were in agreement, Churchill and Eden had to give way, though they knew there would be trouble in the House of Commons.

Here we have two enduring elements of the Yalta myth—that vague Soviet promises, rather than the breach of not-so-vague promises, were responsible for the subsequent fate of Poland, and that the Americans, not the British, bear the burden of guilt. Colville does not hold Roosevelt “personally responsible” and does not use any such crass expression as that Roosevelt “gave the Soviet Union control of Eastern Europe.” Abel’s embellishment of Colville’s version is a good example of how these stories can go from bad to worse in the telling.

The next appearance of another form of the myth comes from a more serious source, Ambassador and now again Professor Jeane J. Kirkpatrick. Yalta was where it was decided to give the Soviet Union three votes in the General Assembly of the future United Nations. In the November Commentary Kirkpatrick deals with it this way:

Founding the UN also required falsifying the relations between the Soviet Union and those two “autonomous Soviet Socialist republics,” the Ukraine and Byelorussia. The Charter required that members be independent states. The Ukraine and Byelorussia were neither autonomous nor republics. Why did the United States and its democratic allies accept this falsification? Presumably, the reason was that they could not bear to face the fact that even after this most recent, most terrible war, there remained a powerful, repressive, expansionist dictatorship to cope with.

Nothing in the Soviet past justified optimism concerning its future behavior. Winston Churchill knew this, Franklin D. Roosevelt should have.

Kirkpatrick’s sense of history here is—to be charitable—defective. The decision on the Ukraine and Byelorussia memberships was made before there was a UN and before it had a charter. The reason for the decision could not have had anything to do with whatever remained after “this most recent, most terrible war.” The war was not yet over; fighting remained even against Germany; the last hard phase of the battle against Japan, with the possible entrance of the Soviet Union into the Far Eastern war, was still ahead; the atomic bomb had not even been tested; American military planners were still counting on a “most terrible war” to come. One must try to put one-self back into the real world of Churchill and Roosevelt at the time of Yalta before judging either of them so loftily.

If Kirkpatrick’s history is bad, her attribution of motives is worse. Her differentiation between Churchill and Roosevelt is, as we shall see, as wrongheaded as can be. The mystery is how is former UN ambassador could get the whole story topsy-turvy.

But she is not the only one who has the allocation of three Soviet seats in the UN all wrong. Another is John Colville in his recently published book, The Fringes of Power, made up largely of his wartime diaries. Colville was not at Yalta; the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, was. In an entry dated February 19, 1945, Colville tells about a conversation with Eden:

The PM had been very persuasive about the Dumbarton Oaks compromise (voting in the Security Council) and the Russians would have been quite happy to agree to none of their constituent states belonging to the Assembly, had not the Americans foolishly acquiesced. Finally the Americans had been very weak.1

Since this is apparently attributed to Eden, there is no telling what Colville knew. Nevertheless, Colville should have known—or learned—by the time his diaries were prepared for publication that there was no truth to this story. Colville’s book has footnotes in which he frequently explains or comments on the text; he has no footnote on this one and this would lead the reader to believe that his source is trustworthy.

In any case, Kirkpatrick and Colville have put into circulation the same fable—that Churchill and the British opposed the allocation of Soviet seats in the United Nations, while Roosevelt and the Americans for reasons of undue optimism or weakness were responsible for it. Kirkpatrick writes so loosely that she first accuses “the United States and its democratic allies,” which would include Great Britain, of accepting the falsification and then suggests that Churchill knew better than Roosevelt. Either way, she completely muddles what actually happened.

The third exhibit from Commentary, by Professor Robert Nisbet, shows how closely interwoven is the past and present in anti-Roosevelt, pro-Churchill retrospection. He does not mention Yalta specifically, but it would be the prime test of his indictment of Roosevelt. His starting point is in the past:

The recently published correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt must make for bitter reading in some quarters. All that we had known in a general sort of way about Roosevelt’s strong disposition to trust Stalin, even over Churchill’s cautionary advice, is detailed richly in these letters. Roosevelt’s credulity toward Stalin and his sometimes rather pathetic ignorance of political history and geopolitics were joined unfortunately to a complacent certainty that Stalin wanted only one thing out of the war: world peace and democracy.

Nisbet then moves into the present:

In many walks of life do we find alive and well the institutionalization of Roosevelt’s unwavering faith in the Soviet Union.

There is nothing—I repeat nothing—in the recently published correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt that shows Roosevelt’s strong disposition to trust Stalin, or his credulity toward Stalin, or his complacent certainty about the only thing that Stalin wanted, or his unwavering faith in the Soviet Union, or that Churchill gave Roosevelt “cautionary advice” about not trusting Stalin. I have read and reread this correspondence without finding any of these things. All these charges against Roosevelt have been invented by Nisbet; they are not in the correspondence. Thus for the third time in this little anti-Roosevelt anthology, Churchill is played off against Roosevelt in order to make Roosevelt appear to be an “unwavering” stooge of the Soviet Union.

If such misrepresentation is still possible in 1985, forty years after Yalta, it is time to set the record straight again. But there would be no urgent need for such an effort if history were not again being made to serve current political extremism. Did Roosevelt personally give the Soviet Union control of Eastern Europe? Why were three seats in the United Nations allotted to the Soviet Union? Did Churchill know so much better than Roosevelt? Before turning to the present political climate in which these questions have been raised, we need to clear up the past.


Franklin D. Roosevelt did not give the Soviet Union control of Eastern Europe; the Red Army did. By the time of Yalta, when the last diplomatic effort was made to stave off total control, the Red Army occupied most of Poland and Eastern Europe. But diplomacy can rarely save what is lost by force of arms. Both Churchill and Roosevelt failed not because they did not want to succeed but for lack of force at the right place at the right time. To accuse one of them, Roosevelt, of in effect doing whatever Stalin wanted him to do is grotesquely false.

If Stalin had any reason to believe that he could take Eastern Europe with impunity, he owed it in the first place to Churchill. Churchill had made a preliminary deal with Stalin in May 1944; they agreed that the Soviet Union would “take the lead” in Romania in return for letting the British “take the lead” in Greece.2 At a meeting in Moscow in October 1944, Churchill proposed a more far-reaching arrangement: a division of power in percentages—for the Soviets, 90 percent in Romania, 75 percent in Bulgaria, 50 percent in Hungary and Yugoslavia, in exchange for 90 percent for Great Britain in Greece. These figures implied that Churchill envisaged a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe in exchange for a British sphere of influence in the Mediterranean area. When Churchill had reported “the system of percentage” to his colleagues in London, he had tried to pass it off as a way for both the British and Soviet governments to “reveal their minds to each c her.” Stalin had revealed his mind by immediately accepting the deal.3

  1. 1

    John Colville, The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939–1955 (Norton, 1985), p. 560.

  2. 2

    Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, edited with a commentary by Warren F. Kimball (Princeton University Press, 1985), Vol. III, pp. 137, 153. This arrangement was first opposed by Roosevelt, who later agreed to it for a three-month trial period after renewed pressure by Churchill (pp. 177, 181–182).

  3. 3

    In his review of the Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence in The New York Review of Books (February 14, 1985), Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s distinguished biographer, reversed the roles played by Churchill and Stalin in what Gilbert called the “notorious ‘percentages agreement.”’ He described it as “that piece of paper on which, at Churchill’s suggestion, Stalin marked his ‘percentages”’ and which was “in fact Churchill’s belated attempt to find out from Stalin just what degree of influence the Soviet leader imagined Russia would have in Eastern Europe, country by country. Stalin’s jottings about the countries he expected to control revealed an ambitious tyrant, but a tyrant whose armies were gaining every day by military conquest the ‘percentages’ which he had so brazenly committed to paper.” It has been known at least since the sixth and last volume of Churchill’s memoirs that it was Churchill who had written the percentages “on a half-sheet of paper” and had “pushed this across to Stalin, who by then had heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick on it, and passed it back to us” (Triumph and Tragedy, Houghton Mifflin, 1953, p. 227). Such are the tricks of memory in this seemingly treacherous field.

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